Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Mike McCarthy: A Short Leash?

New Packer coach Mike McCarthy spoke out on Sunday, and with it, spoke to the hearts of Packer fans across the nation, still stinging from a 4-12 season and looking for hope.

As the dramatic dust settles from the firings and hirings and January, it is time to start observing the foundations being built in February. McCarthy has been building his coaching staff in past weeks, some hires getting stamps of approval from fans, some getting tentative nods, and some getting fretting hand-wringing.

But now, with most of the coaching staff in place, it is time to see what they can do, and look towards McCarthy’s future. A question I’ve asked a couple of times lately is “What is McCarthy’s Measure of Success?”, a completely fair and rational question. How will we know when he is successful, and worthy of a contract extension?

That is indeed the rub: his contract. Mike McCarthy signed an interesting three-year contract to coach the Packers, a short time for any new coach. Looking at other head coaches signed this off-season, Brad Childress was signed to a five-year contract. Scott Linehan signed a four-year deal. Rod Marinelli also signed for four years. Sean Payton is a four-year guy, also.

Why three years? Ask McCarthy.

“Like anything when you deal with contracts, you have one option or another, a three- or four-year deal,” said McCarthy in an interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

“I’m confident in my abilities to win football games. I’d say about the last two years when I coordinated in New Orleans — in today’s game you’re better off with a shorter-term deal. Change is part of our business, I’m not going to deny that. The three-year deal as opposed to the four-year deal, I was very comfortable with. Because I think three years is enough to say, 'Hey, we’re going in the right direction, or we’re not.' We’ll be going in the right direction in our third year.”

Indeed. Three years, however, is a pretty short sample of time to show that you’re going in the right direction. Especially when you consider that it’s not really three years.

Last summer, former Packer coach Mike Sherman’s contract caused quite a bit of furor because he went into his lame-duck last year without an extension (until a late deal in August).

Two seasons ago, Mike Tice, former coach of the Minnesota Vikings, went into his last season of his contract without an extension, prompting widespread speculation that his job wasn’t acceptable enough to warrant one, and furthermore, creating an unsure environment for veterans and free agents looking to be a part of a building-up, not looking to be suddenly surprised by a tearing-down.

So, in essence, McCarthy has two seasons, 2006 and 2007, to truly establish the team is in “the right direction”, before hitting his lame-duck season. What will be considered “the right direction”, though?

For some of the spoiled Packer faithful, who have indulged in almost two decades of winning season after winning season (firing any coach who doesn’t have a winning season, mind you), they may say the obvious: a winning record, playoff berth, division championship by 2007.

It is indeed true that a team can be turned around in that short of a time. In an era of free agency and salary caps, we see many instances of worst-to-first that give any franchise hope for immediate turnarounds.

However, statistics show that it isn’t as likely as we think. Of the eighteen teams that have gone 4-12 since 1996, only six have made the playoffs within two seasons of that mark. In other words, playing the percentages, the Packers have a 67% chance of not making the playoffs by McCarthy’s lame-duck season.

This is to say nothing of winning the division or actually winning a playoff game.

This places some of our initial criteria as being rather stacked against McCarthy being “in the right direction” by his last contract year.

I don’t think that’s completely fair to McCarthy, who has given the fans some hope with his tough, no-nonsense attitude and commitment to putting Packer Players on the field. In some way, we may have to “lower the bar” just a bit. I don’t mean that we should lower our expectations and be content with mediocrity, but take on a realistic point of view that gives McCarthy his best opportunity to win with what he has.

There are two things that will continue to play into McCarthy’s success, and one may well be the support general manager Ted Thompson gives him. Thompson, already with a reputation for playing his cards very close to the vest, is in his first true opportunity to build a franchise for success, after taking a bit of a mulligan last season.

The interesting thing is that Thompson has four years remaining on his contract. McCarthy has three. Neither wants to be in a lame-duck situation. How do you take this?

There are many interpretations, one of which involves the idea that Thompson and McCarthy are not joined at the hip, nor do they have to be. If McCarthy and Thompson each had four years to prove themselves, you could get the idea they were in this all the way, sink or swim, much as Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre were in the early 90’s. As McCarthy’s boss, Thompson reserves the right to terminate him if he doesn’t feel the direction is right. Again, two years is a short time to establish that.

Thompson is well aware that he is not Ron Wolf, and that competition and finagling of the salary cap is even more difficult today than in 1992. McCarthy is going to need to take what he is given and make the best of it. It may not show up in the overall record, but it needs to show up in execution, intensity, and well, direction.

The other thing that may truly come back to affect our new coach two seasons from now is, sadly, Brett Favre and the open comments McCarthy made regarding his retirement. As much as Mike Woods, a Wisconsin columnist who insisted that Favre must commit for two years or not at all, was off-base in regards to Favre and his commitment level, he was probably right for McCarthy’s sake.

McCarthy, whether it be sincere or a bit of public relations, has come out and said, “We want Brett Favre to be the quarterback here next year, without a doubt, 120 percent, however you want to write it.”

Adding to that, he has echoed GM Ted Thompson’s assertation that this is not a rebuilding project, and this is a team this will be competitive this year.

Now, as far as Favre is concerned, he most likely gives this team the best chance to win this year. But, again, McCarthy himself is working on a two-year-to-prove-it situation. Favre coming back for one year and doing poorly means he is undoubtedly gone in 2007, and that will be McCarthy’s chance to build his own team (now with one year to go). If Favre is successful in 2006, McCarthy will be looked at to retain Favre for another year, or if he retires, to again be building anew at QB, his previous success now suspect again with a new quarterback.

For Favre, it makes no sense to commit for two years. He has said he will play as long as his body and mind are able and willing to play at a high level. His two-year commitment becomes Thompson's two year commitment reciprocated back to Favre. However, while it is best for Favre to go year-by-year, it isn't good for the small window McCarthy has to prove himself. McCarthy admits this himself, saying, "Brett Favre should not come back to play for Mike McCarthy or for any other reasons. Brett Favre has to play because he knows it’s in his heart to play."

Conversely, Thompson may have cut McCarthy's legs out from underneath them by stating this is a team that will be competitive “right now”. Many fans and media had rebuilding already in mind, and with that, there comes a sense of looking more to the future than the present. In other words, we were probably willing to give McCarthy time to build. Now, we're to expect a turnaround even sooner.

By taking away that crutch, McCarthy has again had more pressure placed on him to perform sooner rather than later. McCarthy attempted to soften a little bit of the pressure on Sunday. “I wouldn’t say it’s a rebuilding project, because those are ifs, they’re not exacts,” McCarthy said of Green, Walker and Favre. Very ambivalent.

So, what’s the point?

Mike McCarthy is our coach, for better or worse, over the next two years, at least. He will be given opportunities to get this team in the right direction, but is under a tremendous task to deliver in a short amount of time, ranging from his own contract length, to Thompson’s guardedness, to Brett Favre, to his own statements on winning now.

Most of us wouldn't want to take on a job like this. Your window is small, and margin of error is pretty narrow. Of course, this is true of any NFL head coaching job, but McCarthy's sell job is a mite higher because of that three-year contract.

As rabid fans, we can dismiss all of those extra pressures and judge against McCarthy with the first 5-11 season.

As good football fans, we have to look for the small victories that equal a team that may be slowly moving “in the right direction”, even if it doesn’t equal the expectations we’ve had for so long in Packer Country.

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